A giraffe collection reaches new heights
● By J. Chambless
“They’re fun. They’re funky,” Harris said of the giraffes. They also light up. (Photo by Ken Mammarella)
By Ken Mammarella
Wendy Harris’ giraffes are in every color of the rainbow – and then some. They adorn almost every room of her home – but not the powder room, back hallway and upstairs bath (“Just because I’ve haven’t put any there,” she said). They’re made of a wealth of media – but not real giraffe parts (“That would pretty much be illegal. Plus I personally don’t want animal carcasses here. That creeps me out”).
She has 1,400 so far listed in her hand-written inventory and estimates the figure will hit 2,000 once she empties, cleans and counts what’s in every display case of her 2,400-square-foot Unionville Colonial home – plus one more for the giraffe head in the backyard garden.
“They’re fun. They’re funky,” she said. “I can’t own one. That’s why I collect them.”
Some are miniature versions of the world’s tallest animals. Others feature just part of their body, such as their heads, with or without the oh-so-long neck, or their equally long legs. A few sport just their characteristic silhouette or spotted patterns of their coats. There are some antiques, but almost all are contemporary interpretations, created by artisans from around the world.
The collection began with a gift from her father. Harris was four or five months old when he came back to North Jersey from Germany with a Steiff plush giraffe. “I don’t know why,” she said. “But I still have it, slightly wounded after my sister cut off its mane after I had smacked her.”
A visit to the Bronx Zoo at age 7 still resonates. “I remember standing in awe at the giraffe enclosure,” Harris said. “They’re the most beautiful, unique, astounding animals. I like the way they walk, move and use their necks – it’s graceful, like a ballet when they’re moving together. Baby giraffes are very curious things. They come to the edge of the pen and stare back at you. They’re as curious about us as we are curious about them.”
She is also fascinated with their biology. “Did you know there are six species? The markings indicate different species. They have purple tongues, which they can unroll, like frogs,” she said. “They are verbal, but we can’t hear them because it’s below our vocal range.”
By 9 or so, she started to collect them. “Whenever I was anywhere, I would look for a giraffe,” she said. Friends have said, “I should like giraffes because I’m spotted,” she said, referring to her freckles, and tall, like a giraffe.
The giraffes have moved with her, first to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, where she studied history and anthropology, then to Rochester, N.Y.; Lansdowne; West Chester; and finally Unionville as she and her husband Steve moved around.
“I took my first and my favorite giraffe to college. You take your comforting things with you,” Harris said. “I was sheltered, barely 18. My love for giraffes was part of the conversation, and through the giraffes new friends ‘got’ me.”
And so, over the decades, the collection has grown. Birthday and Christmas presents. Hostess gifts. Additions just because friends and family members were thinking of her (“My friends aid and abet my collecting”). Souvenirs – but not every giraffe she sees, particularly not “ugly representations.”
Over their 25-year friendship, Pat White has given Harris more than 100 giraffes. “Anything goofy is probably from me,” she said. “I get a kick out of trying to find different ones, cute ones. It’s cool and it’s funny. I want to see her smile. Wendy is one of the few people I could give a sippy cup to and not feel weird.”
Steve, who met Wendy at Muhlenberg, has given her a few, primarily promotional items from Clariant AG that he picked up during his career in industrial chemicals and solvents. “Collections can often explode into great volumes of stuff,” he said. “Be careful what you collect. Who could think there could be this many giraffes?”
With each new arrival, Wendy generally finds the right spot, and there it remains for display – unless it can be used, like mugs, glasses, dishes, cutlery, pieces of clothing and jewelry holders. Over the years, a few have broken, and she has sold a few duplicates at garage sales, but she has never regifted giraffe.
She has not passed along a love of giraffes to her children, Abigail and Matthew, although Matthew for one recent birthday sponsored care for a giraffe in the Philadelphia Zoo. Wendy makes annual donations to the Philadelphia Zoo and Cape May County Park & Zoo in New Jersey, which is where she fondly remembered first seeing giraffes out in the re-creation of their savannah habitat.
That said, she is unhappy about giraffes confined in zoos and is worried about their future on their own competing for the planet’s resources. “I’m terrified they won’t be here for much longer,” she said. “Can you believe they’re slaughtered just for their tails, which are turned into flyswatters for businessmen with more money than sense? That’s pretty disgusting.”
Although she enjoys the giraffes around her every day and has witnessed giraffes in several zoos, she has surprisingly never seen them in the wild in their African homeland. But such a safari – she also wants to include breakfast with giraffes – might be in the offing. She got her first passport in 2018, just after Steve retired, and they’ve been talking about travel destinations. “It’s on my bucket list,” she said.